Raptors' dependence on Kyle Lowry a glaring concern amid 0-3 start

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) goes to the basket between Miami Heat forward Bam Adebayo (13) and forward Maurice Harkless during the first half of an NBA pre-season basketball game Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

There are 69 games left and the Toronto Raptors are only one-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot, so – of course – there is no need to panic.

But hey, it was head coach Nick Nurse who played Stanley Johnson and Alex Len for the first time this season and for extended minutes and at the same time as his club folded against the Philadelphia 76ers to fall to 0-3 to start what promises to be a very strange 2020-21 season.

And it was Kyle Lowry who called the Raptors’ next game – Thursday night against the New York Knicks – a must win.

And it was OG Anunoby who said the reason the Raptors have blown double-digit leads in all three of their opening-season losses – the first team to do that in 20 years, apparently was because they have a tendency to “relax.”

And it was Pascal Siakam – who Nurse called his “closer” – who left the floor in a pout with 30 seconds left after fouling out as the capper on another poor second-half showing in a close game, scraping away an otherwise positive start following his end-of-season stumbles in August and September.

So if it’s not time to panic, clearly it’s not too early to be concerned.

This is all by-product of two things, of course.

One is the Kyle Lowry-era Raptors spoiling everyone with a degree of mind-numbing consistent goodness that was unimaginable before he was given full and complete rein of the team.

Since 2014-15, the Raptors have a 20-4 record in October, typically the opening month of the season.

The Raptors have always come out of the gate strong.

Another is the Raptors habit of almost never losing more than two games consecutively.

They’ve lost four games in a row once in six years. They haven’t lost four games to start a season in 14 years.

Granted it’s early and sure, highly touted clubs like the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets have all lost at least two games, but seeing the Raptors flail at any point of a season has become weird.

And thought the sample size is small, it’s not like the Raptors have been unlucky. Through three games they rank 30th in offensive rating, 30th in free-throw rate and last in the percentage of field goals that are three pointers. In essence, they have abandoned the two most essential pieces of efficient offence – layups and free throws – and settled for lots of threes (44 a game, most in the NBA), of which they are hitting at a mediocre rate (34.8 per cent, 20th).

They turn the ball over a lot (23rd) and they don’t create many additional possessions (23rd in offensive rebounding rate).

Last season their second-ranked defence bailed them out and was often the source of their offence as they led the NBA in fast-break points and were second in points scored off opponent’s turnovers.

Encouraging sign?

They are still in decent shape there. After holding the 76ers to 100 points and 38 per cent shooting, the Raptors are now eighth in defensive rating, rank fifth in fast-break points and fifth in points scored off turnovers. But that success only emphasizes how much they struggle to score in the half court – a hangover from last season and in the playoffs against Boston in particular.

Another glaring concern is how completely dependent the Raptors are on Lowry, their soon-to-be 35-year-old point guard. According to Cleaningtheglass.com, the Raptors are scoring 40.3 points more per 100 possessions in the 111 minutes he’s played this season than in the 33 minutes he’s rested, ranking him in 100th percentile across the league for on/off impact. They’ve allowed 27.2 more points per 100 possessions when he sits, which ranks him in the 95th percentile.

Overall, they play like a 54-win team when he’s on the floor but are 0-3 because they’ve lost the 33 minutes he doesn’t play by 40 total points.

Being impactful is part of Lowry’s job description, however. He’s the highest-paid Raptor and a six-time all-star and perhaps even a future hall-of-famer because he can shape a game with his smarts, skills and energy. Teams are supposed to be better when their best player is playing.

But the Raptors have invested in a young core to keep them competitive this season and into a post-Lowry future – whenever that might be – and so far, they can’t seem to generate anything without Lowry driving play on both ends.

Their top-five two-man units over the first three games (minimum 30 minutes played) all feature Lowry and are the only ones with a net rating per 100 possessions of better than a single point, per NBA.com.

But who else is driving play?

Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are being paid a combined $52 million this year and have a net rating of minus-14 per 100 possessions. If they were a team they’d have the worst net rating in the league. VanVleet and OG Anunoby, who just signed a $72 million extension, have a net rating of minus-10.7 – the 0-4 Detroit Pistons are minus-8 on the year -- while Siakam and Anunoby are minus-9 together.

If your core can only be productive when being escorted around by their big brother Kyle, they may not be as ready for primetime as might have been thought.

There are plenty of reasons that anyone could list for what could simply be a slow start: a short pre-season (it probably didn’t help that Lowry only bothered to play one game); a completely new and almost certainly inferior centre rotation, with newly acquired Aron Baynes and Alex Len weak substitutes for the departed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

And the solutions – at least partial – are clear too: Norm Powell needs to shake off his early-season cobwebs. The Raptors’ sixth man is shooting just 17 per cent from the floor through three games. In fairness, he was shooting 19 per cent through the first four games last season before starting a tear that lasted the rest of the season, interrupted only by injury, so too soon to worry too much on that one.

But Nurse could look for some solutions elsewhere also. It’s unrealistic to expect rookie point guard Malachi Flynn to change the direction of a team as the 29th overall pick in the draft, but he was arguably the Raptors’ best player in two exhibition games where he got regular run – for whatever that’s worth – and looked every inch an NBA player while doing it.

He’s failed to see a meaningful minute since the games started counting – in fact he’s played just one minute so far – but with the second unit being so badly out-played without Lowry on the floor, it can’t hurt to see if Flynn can get something organized in the meantime. So far, no one else has.

Similarly, Terence Davis has been buried while this time a year ago he was a game-changing find as a rookie free agent.

If his off-season legal issues are some kind of obstacle, the Raptors should declare him inactive and be done with it until things are resolved.

But if he’s dressed, it seems strange he hasn’t seen the floor for more than three minutes of garbage time given his track record for sparking offence and the Raptors’ tendency this season to forget how to score for long stretches.

Bigger picture, it’s not clear if any of this will matter.

A three-game losing streak is a three-game losing streak is a three-game losing streak. Whether they happen at the beginning of the season, the middle or the end, the effect is the same. The only thing that matters is teams that expect to do something can’t have too many of them.

The Raptors are in the midst of one. The good news is they have 69 games left to avoid having many more.

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